NEW ORLEANS - President Donald Trump’s departure from the White House January 20 – four years after he wrestled control of the Republican Party – puts the party at a crossroads over its future leadership and direction, with the continued loyalty of tens of millions of ardent Trump supporters an open question.
The assault on the U.S. Capitol January 6 put Republican divides in sharper relief, as rioters waved Trump flags while violently seeking out lawmakers and, notably, chanting “Hang Mike Pence” – referring to a vice president who has been one of the most reliable conservatives in the Republican Party.
"January 6 was the opening battle in the war for the soul of the Republican party in the post-Trump era," said Whit Ayers, president of Republican polling firm North Star Opinion Research. He told VOA, “There is a populist element and a governing element, and I think the two groups will be struggling for control of the Republican Party going forward.”
The division manifested itself on Wednesday when 10 Republican House members, including the third-ranking Republican leader, Liz Cheney, joined forces with the Democratic majority to impeach Trump on the charge of “incitement of insurrection.”
The battle is likely to be on full display during a U.S. Senate trial likely to begin later this month – the second time Trump will have to defend himself against impeachment charges. While a handful of Republican senators pointedly chastised the president after the Capitol assault and some called for his swift departure, it remains to be seen how the Republican caucus will perform in a vote expected to come long after Trump’s departure from the White House.
Divisions extend beyond Republicans in elected office. Seventy-four million Americans voted for Trump in the November presidential contest, many of whom believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the election was “stolen” from him and that the broader Republican Party failed to fight hard enough on Trump’s behalf.
“I hope the current party dies,” said Jake Ballard, a Trump voter from North Carolina. “Republicans like [Utah Republican Sen.] Mitt Romney seem to despise voters like me just as much as Democrats do. They’re cowards and they don’t represent my interests.”
Romney was the lone Republican senator to vote in favor of convicting Trump after his initial impeachment last year and has remained a frequent critic of the president.
One faction of the Republican Party comprises evangelical Christian and conservative voters like Ballard, who continue to passionately support Trump and the politicians they feel have remained unflinchingly loyal to him.
Ballard said he felt proud watching thousands of “patriots” answering the president’s call to contest the election result. While he says he regrets the riot at the Capitol, he does not fault Trump and notes the president has since disavowed political violence.
“He may be the only consistent one among us,” Ballard said. “He condemned Black Lives Matter violence this summer from the left, and now he’s condemning it from the right.”
Polls show a decline in Trump’s approval ratings since January 6, when Trump in a speech urged his supporters to march on the Capitol to protest the election results. But an average of polls compiled by fivethirtyeight.com showed fewer than one-in-six Republicans backing Trump’s removal from office a week after the Capitol assault that left five dead, including a Capitol police officer.
In Texas, Trump supporter Marie Garza told VOA she would likely vote for the president if he ran again in 2024. She said events at the Capitol “mark the birth of a new Republican Party.”
Garza added, “The Republicans that stood by Trump and fought for democracy and freedom are apparent as are those who rode his coattails and who have now abandoned him. A new, modern Republican/Conservative party is evolving and it's one I am excited about.”
While many Republicans continue to rally behind Trump and see him as the natural leader of the party going forward, others are ready to turn the page and believe Trump’s continued prominence as the face of the party would be disastrous.
“I was so embarrassed to watch what happened last week,” Florida resident and veteran Harvey Wasserman told VOA. “If there’s something you want to protest, go ahead, but breaking into Congress is unacceptable and it made a mockery of America in front of the entire world.”
Wasserman voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 but now hopes the president will stay out of politics once he leaves office.
“I hope he’ll go to Mar-a-Lago and lock himself inside,” Wasserman said, referring to Trump’s Florida resort. “He embarrassed the Republican Party. Stay there and don’t come out.”
American University political historian Allan Lichtman doubts the president will fade from sight.
“Unless Trump’s in jail, which isn’t impossible at this point,” he said, “then I can’t imagine him going into the good, long night.”
Lichtman believes this could spell trouble for the Republican Party as evidenced by the two recent Senate contests in Republican-leaning Georgia, which were won by Democrats.
“We just saw it in his central role in the Georgia run-offs. He has a tremendous personal following that they can’t afford to lose because of their numbers but can’t afford to keep because appealing to them pushes away independents and centrist Republicans.”
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock says, whatever Trump’s future role in the party and the nation’s discourse may be, some damage is already done.
“I think Trump has made it very hard for Republicans to run in more moderate states and districts,” Bullock told VOA.
If they renounce the president, he said, they leave themselves open to primary challenges from the pro-Trump wing of the party that would be hard to overcome. But being seen as a Trump ally may cost them in the general election.
Trump loyalist Jake Ballard’s stance illustrates the challenge for Republicans working to hold their party together.
“If the Republican party continues to be ruled by these milquetoast RINOs like Romney, [former Arizona Sen. John] McCain and [Kentucky Sen. Mitch] McConnell, then I’ll skip those elections and just stick to the local ones,” said Ballard. RINO stands for Republican in Name Only – an epithet wielded against those deemed too cozy with Democrats.
Jillian Dani, a Trump voter from central Florida, says she is not eager for civil war among Republicans. She believes unified Democratic control of Congress and the White House during at least the first two years of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will help reunite the party.
“I’m focused on keeping the Democrats from destroying this country,” she explained. “I’m scared of what they’re capable of and I really think we need to come together to take control of Congress. By voting, I mean.”